I grew up with the notion that being useful was what one wanted in life: superfluity was simply not good enough, the absolute end! Be useful, I was told, and you shall be happy! I remember, when I stumbled, as a callow and impressionable youth, onto the notion of the superfluous man or lišnij čelovek (лишний человек) in Russian nineteenth-century literature, the joy at discovering that forbidden purpose, the end of purpose itself in these men: Lermontov, Pushkin, Turgenev, they all speak of useless men, men without aim or need, men who sit around, languish, take up, perhaps, a gentleman’s post in the army for a short while, travel, write memoirs and take a lover or two.
And so I read and read, devouring these men, insatiably wanting not only to understand them, but to become them. To be that, I thought, is what I really want: I wanted, that is, to be someone who lived without purpose or need, outside the demands of the awful gray misery of the work ethic.
At last, I thought, a way of being absolutely nothing.
And so it was that I bought a long trench coat and started smoking French cigarettes; I developed a habit of sprawling in demonstrative melancholy in cafes with long and intricate works of Russian literature; I never went anywhere without my copy of Lermontov’s collected early poems or A Hero of our Time and was always close to my Turgenev and my Yevteshchenko; I stopped eating proper meals and took up a prodigious alcohol habit; I stayed up all hours listening to the Doors; smoked too much and went about the business of wasting time with a zeal and conviction of which only someone fully imbued with the protestant work ethic is capable.
And yet, to be nothing, I found, was a very tricky business. One had to find ways of doing nothing which involved as little work as possible, whilst only ever spectacularly succeeding in doing nothing once one had made the appropriate and diligent preparations; and one could only spectacularly succeed in being nothing, once one had succeeded in doing nothing.
It was actually quite complicated. You see, you had to find a way of setting the day up such that sprawling and procrastinating could become bearable. This was the trickiest part of the process: to be and do nothing meant having endless and unflinching patience. The discipline of this superfluity was extremely exacting. In response to the demands of my languishing, I developed a quite strict regimen: rise promptly at noon, avoid showering and contact with others at all cost, don elegantly ratty trench coat, toss long unkempt hair and strut out into the street with a sense of clarity and purpose afforded only to those who bathe in the glorious splendor of their superfluity. Take up residence at library, cafe, coffee shop or bar and begin the day’s languishing... Over the months and months, I started elaborating my regimen to take in certain rituals (kneel and you shall prey? Repeat and you shall be content). I experimented with kinds of walking, and attempted on several occasions to occupy space with a certain deliberateness. If I could feel my body occupying space, I thought, if I could remain consistently conscious of its fleshiness, its materiality, I could not get distracted by the ubiquitous toxicity of purpose and need... It was my ultimate desire in this to occupy space with an intention so focused, so purposeful, that could only come from an unswerving commitment to the project of nothingness. I found I could concentrate on occupying space for up to 4 minutes at a time and developed a way of setting up a posture that could block out any attempt from the outside world to shake me from my resolve: do not speak to me of time or of need, I am busy with the core of being, thank you very much.
In the end, then, I became an exemplary layabout. The Stakhanovite heroism of my commitment to this regimen is one of my life’s greatest achievements.
This year, I shall mostly be trying to recapture those heady days of nihil.